Proper 4C June 2, 2013
The centurion said, “Lord . . . I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; . . .But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; . . .” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd . . . he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
We exercise authority under authority. Authority is received and exercised in faith. Our faith is that God is at work in the world he created, the world in which Jesus redeemed all who call on him, the world of the Holy Spirit of love, and truth, and power. Our task as Christian people is to join with the Spirit’s to make God’s will a reality. God’s authority is given us to do that work.
Authority comes with faith. Today we heard the Prophet Elijah exercising God’s authority in his conflict with King Ahab and the priests of Baal. We heard St. Paul exercising God’s authority writing to the Galatian Christians. And we heard Jesus’ authority healing the Centurion’s servant and his teaching that authority, divine and human, is received and exercised in faith.
Our Old Testament lessons this month will be about Elijah in continuing conflict with the alternative religion of his time. For the next 6 weeks our Epistle readings will be from Galatians, St. Paul dealing with false teaching in the church. In the Gospel from now to December we will follow Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, a ministry that led to conflict with the leaders of the people, that led to the cross of Good Friday, the empty tomb of Easter, and the power of God in the mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit of love, truth, and power comes to the church to show us God’s will and to give us the power and authority to seek to accomplish God’s will.
King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel had a problem. Israel was politically unstable. It had 3 violent changes in government in 53 years. Fathers seized power, ruled about 20 years and were succeeded by sons who were quickly overthrown. Ahab’s father Omri had overthrown Baasha’s son Elah. Baasha had overthrown Jeroboam’s son Nadab. Jeroboam had over thrown Solomon’s son Rehoboam and divided the kingdom.
Ahab tried to create political stability through religious uniformity. He chose to support the Baal Astarte religion of his Lebanese wife Jezebel and to reject the religion of the neighboring kingdom of Judah. Ball was the storm god, shown as a bull. Astarte was the earth goddess. The Baal Astarte religion was a nature religion based on the cycle of fall and winter rain to grow barley and winter wheat. To bring the fall rain and encourage the storm god to make the earth goddess fertile farmers would go to the Baal temple and participate in sympathetic magic – sexual intercourse - with women worshippers of Astarte. For some it was a popular religion. But cyclical earth religions are based on the idea that things don’t change. They may get a little worse, but they don’t get much better.
Against Ahab’s effort to unify his kingdom in worship of Baal and Astarte Elijah proclaimed the will of God. God is God of all. He created all that is, visible and invisible. He is God of nature. He created the fertile earth, He sends the rain. But God is more than simply a God of nature. God is a God of history. God created all that is for his purpose - that we may love and serve him in our time until he brings his creation to an end. God brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in the Holy Land. God sets us free from the compulsions of sin, free to love and serve him. God is a God of freedom. The nature religions are people trapped in the cycle of nature and historically that leads to slavery.
Ahab called for a religions face-off. God gave him victory, and a bloodbath followed. When Queen Jezebel heard Ezekiel had murdered her priests she ordered him to leave or die. In exile in Sinai Elijah heard the Lord (19:12) in what the KJV calls “a still small voice” and the NRSV “a sound of sheer silence.” The Lord told Elijah to foment revolution – to anoint Hazael king of Syria, and Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah his successor as prophet in Israel. The Lord promised to leave 7000 in Israel, “all the knees that have not bowed the knee to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Throughout history the Lord of history has preserved a spiritual witness to his love, truth, and power. God grant us grace and power and his authority to be God’s witness in our time. All authority is a gift of God, a gift given to guide and empower us to do God’s perfect will.
Our Epistle tells how Paul had evangelized Galatia in central Turkey, preaching in the synagogues to Jews and “god-fearers.” God-fearers were gentiles attracted by the ethical standards of Judaism. But the men were not able to undergo circumcision surgery and the women were not able to keep the laws about foods and family life. The Galatians received the good news of Jesus “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” with joy.
But once we are converted, once we have received the good news of Jesus with joy, we live out that joy in our lives in a continuing spiritual conflict between law and grace. The teachers from the Jerusalem church were accustomed to the habits of prayer and obedience to the 613 commandments in the Torah – the law of God – 365 negative, one each day in the solar year, and 248 positive, the number of bones and organs in the human body (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a) They said these are required. Paul and Jesus said, No! Love God, love our neighbor, and love because you are loved.
Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” I invite you to consider: What do we habitually do in gratitude to Jesus for his death and resurrection, led by the Spirit to exercise God’s authority? Do we habitually pray? Do we habitually give our time and talent? Do we habitually look for opportunities “to love and serve” God “as faithful witness” to the presence and power of Christ in our lives? How do we exercise our God given authority in our lives? How to we live out our faith?
Can Jesus say of us, as he did of the Centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”